Liminal State of Shaman: A Subjective Account–Part 1
It was a bright sunny day in the spring season when I experienced something totally alien to me. There were strange voices, images and feelings. Initially, I thought these were figments situated only in my mind. I felt that there was another person who is already present within me and wanted to emerge from the confines of my mind into the presence of the physical world. That voice was like a call from very distant place in my village. In the villages of Gilgit-Baltistan, it is still a norm to call people in stentorian voice to communicate with people who are working at distances in gardens, meadows, jungles, terraces, fields and barren land besides river. So, its very natural to hear different people shouting each other names at the peak of their voice in a single day. The method to cull the voice intended for us is to find how our name is pronounced. One of the cultural traits that has aslo become a linguistic trait in Gilgit is deforming the original name into new one by twisting the pronunciation. Hence, we can see people calling a person with the name Attaullah as Tayo, Fateh Ullah as Phatawul, Derwesh as Beesho, Bulbul as Bhulo, Mehboob as Bhuko, Meharbaan as Meermaaan etc. Since childhood people have never called me with my original name of Chamuli. It was a common practice among the people of Gilgit in the past to give name to their children after an object of nature or animal. Such as kutoro (puppy). There is another practice of giving hidden name to a child so that s/he can be saved from the magic and amulets from enemies. Then there is an alias for the same person. Mostly aliases are used for the identity of the person. In the labyrinth of different names, the real name is rarely remembered by the relatives and people in the village. My common alias was Teenchi. It is name of a flying insect that sucks blood from horses and famous for darting from one point to another. Once I was walking alongside the main water channel of my village. There was not vegetation on the mountain above the channel line. The channel was adorned with trees of weeping willow and Russian olive. The air is filled with fragrance of Russian olive flowers and the scenery is full of blossom of trees of cherry, apricot, pomegranate, peach, apple, Russian olive and many shrubs. It seems as if the ambiance is filled with fusing of fragrances and the dance of colours. While walking on the path on the banks of channel, I heard a faint voice up above from the top of mountain. Initially, I ignored it as rattling of an old call in my mind. Then that voice became distinct. In a fart state, I looked towards the sky but could not find anything. After few seconds, I felt someone is calling my name in a mellow and melodious voice from close quarters. I tried to take a glance around me. When I completed my glance, I felt I saw something in a nanosecond. It was like an epiphany. I remember the colour but could not figure out the figure of that entity. At the same time my heart started to throb violently. It created an uncanny restlessness within me. In the combined state of awe and fear, I start to run down the slope towards the settlement of village. Upon reaching home, I straight away jump into the bed and hid myself in quilt. That glimpse of colour started to appear before my eyes every time I blink my eyes. I started to shudder and sweating profusely because of fever. Then, I fell asleep.
Later, I was awakened by noise in the indigenous house of ours as all the family members tend to gather around the hearth. My mom shared with father about my fever. They offered me local soup called dawdo. Though all other members of family went to sleep normally, I went to the bed dreading something unknown. It took me a long to fall asleep. However, I was awakened by a sweet voice. When I opened my eyes, I saw a mesmerizingly beautiful creature looking at me from the smoke hole of summer house. When I blinked my eyes, it disappeared. In fear I suddenly screamed, and my family members came rushing towards me. I told my mother that I was afraid as an invisible creature was chasing me. I was hardly an eight years girl at that time. Now the figure of that entity kept flashing in my eyes. Next morning, I could not get out of my bed because I felt exhausted as if I had been working for whole night. Upon the thought of that figure palpitation of my heart accelerated to the extent that I felt as if someone was trying to come out from my mind with all my breath. Next evening, I avoided sleeping in summer house and preferred to sleep in an enclosed room with no view outside except the door. Again, I woke up at mid night and looked outside the door into the common room of summer house. The sky was clear. Because of moon shine, Duumani mountain was glistening like a diamond all over the valley. The moon rays were beaming the common room with their shimmering light. After a while I saw an intangible thing taking shape in lunar rays. Gradually, it adopted a form. That entity had same colours that I remember in my first vision in water channel. Her refulgent face was similar to what I saw yesterday. Now I could see her completely. Then in an unconscious state like somnambulism, it got up and started to walk towards her. She gestured to come towards her. When I reached near her. She rose from her position as if flying invisibly. I then followed her by climbing the stairs. Then, I went into a dream. In the dream she took me to a meadow full of fairies, ibexes and roses of myriad hues. I played with baby fairies.
Next morning, I was awoken by a sound. I saw a shepherd from my village shouting my name. I found myself besides a spring in a nearby pasture. He took me back home. My parents and relatives were frantically searching for me the whole night. Since I was too much of a tender age to do any daring attempt like walking away from home into uninhabited places in the middle of night. To probe what exactly happened to me, a passhu (soothsayer) woman of the village was invited. She took a hair of mine. Meanwhile, I spent my whole day under the vigilant eyes of my mother and father. Now even in our fields, I witnessed that fairies sitting upon a willow tree. Gesturing to me to come towards them. The baby fairies were perching on roses and frolicking around and flying from one rose to another. After the nightfall, I slept with my parents. In a state of deep slumber, I felt someone singing in my mind. In the dream I started to sing and dance with fairies. Suddenly, the scene disappeared, and I found my parents calling my name “my dear Chamuli. What has happened to you? You were singing and talking to someone”. They kept a vigil whole night to protect me from escaping from home. The very next morning, my parents went to ask Pashuu about my last escapade into the meadow. The soothsayer kept my hair under her pillow. In her dream she saw that a fairy took Chamuli with her. She told my mother that I was under the target of fairy who wanted to keep me with her for a lifetime as she was in love with me. She advised my parents to give me under the supervision of a master shaman because I had all the telling signs of shamans. The soothsayer said that the master shaman would streamline the disparate and uncanny experiences faced my me.
By the time I was taken to the master shaman, I had already been inundated by visions, dreams, voices and uncanny events, but I could not make sense of any of those as they did not appear ordinary human experiences. To make sense of all these one needs an eye to see beyond mundane human experience. The master shaman first asked me about my visions and experiences. After listening to me carefully, the master shaman thus spake: “You need to work on opening a section of your mind that is buried under the dust by its engagement with ordinary things.” He further stated: “Through certain practices, one can open that dimension. It is only after freeing that perspective of mind from our limited perspective, we can attain an eye that can see intangible, ear to listen voices that are inaudible to ordinary ears and mind to fathom the uncanny experience. Meanwhile you must follow certain social and dietary restrictions to pass through the state of liminality.”
Thereafter, I was not allowed to eat meat especially of beef. I had to avoid dirty places, manure, women with menstruation, going to home where someone died and indulging in anything that associated with activities of areeniji (the people with evil spirit and human body such as witches, yacholo, mitto/phanis). With increasing observance of these rules, my physical health started to deteriorate, and my mental health went awry as my mind wandered in every direction. The situation aggravated to the extent that my mind even could not navigate the path to my home. It happened that I could not want to leave certain places. There was even a strong craving to go to certain places even in mid night. For example, there was a covered orchard with a spring in it, but it was away from settlement and was near the jungle. It was adorned with different fruit trees and wildflowers of mil makhoti and baeybari. I slept there several times during the scorching midday of summer. I felt as if I was sleeping in the lap of my mother. That place became home for my spirit. Unconsciously, I started to arrange things around the spring in the orchard. I was collecting things that could provide comfort to me. I found different wild mushrooms like kachuli and other vegetables. I preferred to eat these to the ordinary human food. I worked frantically like a bird that was anticipating a storm anytime soon. After few weeks, I realized that I had already built a nest for myself. I had this increasing desire to a become bird. Indeed, I felt myself as bird. Seeing my preposterous habits and engagements, my parents complained to the master, but he advised them not to interfere in my affairs as I was exploring myself. Every week, the master told me regularly about ways of shamans mainly through stories and fables. With the passage of time, I started to associate myself with those stories. It looked as if these stories were derived from my experience. Though the stories involved shamans, fairies, ibexes, snow cocks, flying squirrels, and other mythical creatures, I found myself closer to these wild and mythical entities than humans.
It also happened that I started to extract meaning from the chirping and singing of birds. When I slept in my nest in the orchard, I had dreams that were inhabited by fairies and mythical beings. After awakening from dream, I felt exhausted and sad. I wanted to sleep again and live in dreams. I shared my urge to be in dreams with the master. He told me to never live permanently in dream as it would numb my ordinary senses. He said, “it is on her normal senses, a shaman builds her extraordinary and extrasensory senses. The main purpose of initiating you into the shamanic vocation is the fuse both ordinary and uncanny experience so that you have a balance mind with extraordinary ability to see intangible, uncanny and spiritual. The path of shaman is fraught with dangers as she faces situations for which normal human is not capable of tackling. I am here to accompany you to show the path towards mythical realm. Remember, after completing the liminal sate and shamanic initiation requirements you will become a new person. Never revert to foibles and hobbies of your previous self because it will disintegrate you into hundreds of selves. The undoing of shamanic traits leads to insanity.” “What is insanity?” he asked and then answered himself. “It is disintegration of one personality into hundreds of personalities that are trying to capture your attention and mind. Amidst the cacophony of noises competing in your mind, you will start to scream, shout, curse and abuse. These are the typical traits of an insane person. If you succeed to pass through this liminal state into a full shaman, you will have unified sensibility covering myriad senses and sensibilities. You will sing the songs of fairies and aspire for everything that is melodious, colorful, enchanting and sublime. Thus, you will become embodiment of sublime creature like the deity Milaleeli -the deity of beauty.”
Within the span of two and half years, I followed the instructions of master shaman and observed rules religiously. It was not a smooth sailing though. Sometimes my mind would become so much overburden with sights and sounds that I wanted to throw them all out from my mind like we throw useless stone into a ridge. There was suicidal ideation also. At times, I felt as if they were within me and the only way to get rid of them is to throw myself over the ridge into the deep valley below or jump into the river to drown these experiences. But it happened that every time such thoughts occurred in my mind; I developed a habit of running towards the master for help. Near the completion of my liminal state, the master turned into a figure of saviour to me. After undergoing all these mental troubles and psychological tribulations, I felt that I was dealing with my experience without much agitation. In the last six months before the imitation ceremony of shaman, the master spoke less to me and observed more. Upon completion of the liminal period, he asked to get prepared for initiation ceremony of chato toki wherein I was supposed to sing and dance to the tune of music before people and perform a ritual. After much consultation a certain date was selected. That day the whole village gathered together in the venue of khal (it’s a round shaped space used for ceremonies and thrashing wheat). People were advised not to wear cloths with red colour as it infuriates the fairies. It was an afternoon, when the ceremony started. There was a group of musicians. It is normal practice in Gilgit to play all the musical instruments together. Instead of playing them in unison, the musicians started to play single instrument individually. There was this one musician who started to play a flute. It created a sudden rush of emotions within me. I felt agitated and my body started to shiver. What happened outside me, I do not remember, but I do remember what was going on in my mind. People told me that I suddenly jumped into the ground and dashed towards flute and wanted to put my whole being into the flute. I remember that when the music of flute started, I recalled the voices I used to hear in orchard and different places. The flute was speaking me in the language of fairies. In the state of ecstasy, I started to converse with them. That inner conversation came in the shape of shamanic song called ugali. I sang these words:
Maga gaiys maagi,
Maey suji Duumani daaru,
Wa maagi ga maey shakar maagi,
Wa maey dudhi aaji,
Ma ga heriy gaiyt na zaanpaan-e-ja,
May thar daraygat nay maagi,
Sonu raku daaru,
Birkhees chees daru,
Maey Suji aaji,
Wa maey maagi ga maagi.
I have left my dear,
Into the sacred Duumani mountain,
My real mother,
You have taken on abroad on flying plank,
And you made me fly,
Into the golden palace,
A mountain of riches,
My sacred mother,
O my dear! O my dear.
Then the drumbeat had infused immense energy within me. Whilst looking towards sky and my hands raised, I jumped into the middle of ground surrounded by spectators. I danced and sang with uncanny energy. People tell me that thereafter I took a head of a slaughtered goat and started to suck its blood. This was an outward description but something else was going in my mind. In my experience, after some time, I felt a fragrance around me and started chasing it. The fragrance was of gunair (Russian olive). That smell took me towards an ibex sitting among fairies. They presented me an ibex horn filled with milk. It was a sweetest thing I tasted in my life. There was one old fairy who whispered in my ear. She confided me, that from now onward, I was a member of her family. She would protect me from every evil and harm. Then she took me on a flying plank over the deep valleys situation in the snow clad mountain. There were meadows with roses of umpteen hues that have never seen before. I spent several months with them visiting different places. A salient feature of the mythical places of fairies is that there was no dirty place or smell associated with humans. I lived with a bevy of young fairies. The mother fairy told me that they would confide any future secret to me and would always accompany me. They taught me about ways of shamans. I spent few more months in their tutorship. I shall interject here that the time of ceremony was hardly for an hour, but I spent several months in the company of fairies. So, the time in the realm of fairies changes as human hour in mythical realm expands for months and years.
After nine months, the fairies arranged a huge gala of music and dance. Thereafter, they put me on a flying plank bedecked with heavenly roses. When I landed in my village, I felt was awaken suddenly by violent convulsion. I found myself surrounded by people and convulsing violently. They sprinkled cold water on my face to bring me into consciousness from my unconscious state. I felt that my body was totally exhausted. After opening my eyes for few minutes, I collapsed again and fell asleep. That day, I woke up by evening. My parents asked how I felt. I never understood what they were saying. It took me a couple of days to recover from that my ecstatic state. Since then, I hear differently, comprehend differently and see differently. I feel as if a real person was buried within me. That real person was my real self. My real self-came forth in the shape of shaman. I am not the old Chamuli. I am Chamuli of meadow of fairies. My baraeyay (fairies/deities) call me Soni Chamuli Gas. What happened to my personality afterward becoming a full shaman is a story for next episode.
(to be continued)